A view from Israel: Who am I, who are we?

Torah Editor Noah Rothman spent a week in Jerusalem and is now on Ramah Seminar program

July 11, 2014


Screen capture from IDF Youtube video

SHIELDS: First moments of explosion after IDF attack July 11 on missiles stored in residential neighborhood in Gaza.

My name is Noah Rothman, I am 16 and am spending my summer in Israel on the six-week Ramah Seminar program. However I will have been here for seven weeks by the end. My older brother Saul lives here and is making aliyah in August, so I went to Israel a week early to spend time with him.

I was here while the three boys were missing and here for the discovery of their deaths. I was in Tel Aviv walking to the bus when a friend of my brother’s whom we passed told us. I personally had no idea what to say. I remember not feeling shocked. I remember hauntingly thinking that the whole situation made sense – that it was not a surprise they’d been killed.

However, my brother’s emotions were quite different. He described feeling as though he had been punched in the gut. I was left feeling as though maybe my reaction was not right. We got on the bus back to Jerusalem. An older man approached my brother and shared with him his perspective as a father during this situation. He expressed his fear that this could have happened to any child in the country.

While we were talking to him, my father called me from Los Angeles. He called me distraught with the situation, unable to work. We talked about the kids and what may have happened, why the kidnapping unfolded as it did. While we were talking, I realized how I felt. I was confused. This was not a normal act of terror. We have had baseless murder and kidnappings before. As somber and horrible as these were, they didn’t feel the same to me.  This was not just a kidnapping to me. This was the death of a 16-year-old American-Israeli student, another 16-year-old and 19-year-old.

The fact that an American 16-year-old just like me was killed was shocking to me. He was kidnapped right next to an institution, Mekor Chaim, where many of us know people, and send our kids. The part that bothered me the most was that he was never supposed to die. He was supposed to be kidnapped and be traded for prisoners. They were supposed to live. However, they acted and tried to save their own lives – Gilad Shaar used his cellphone to call police — and were ultimately killed for this.

As troubling as all this has been for me, the underlying question that no one seems to answer is where was everyone. Where were the police who gave the kidnappers a nine-hour head start? Where was America? I have always viewed America — possibly naively — as being a country that does not get pushed around and stands up for its own. Where was America for Eyal and Gilad? Where was America for one of their own, Naftali?

Even in Israel, I felt that the reaction was greater from the people of Israel than its army. This I definitely thought would be switched, but I clearly did not know Israel.

On Tuesday night July 1, the night before I was going to meet up with my program and the same day the boys had been found, Saul and I went to Ben Yehudah Street in Jerusalem. As we were walking we saw a swarm of people running to one area along with a ton of police. I told my brother that we had to go with them.

We followed them to a McDonald’s, where they proceeded to rally. They tried to go inside the McDonald’s but the police wouldn’t let them. I later learned that there was an Arab in there and some Israelis tried to beat him up.

After the Israelis stopped there was a rally. At least 200 people were in a circle singing and chanting. They were chanting Yehudim neshama, Aravim ben-zona. This chant meant Jews have soul, Arabs are sons-of-bitches.

My brother and I thought about how wrong the chant was. I couldn’t understand why one would chant this when trying to obtain peace. Why would they yell such a thing in time of such tension? It made no sense to me.

The next day I joined my program. I thought the whole situation had calmed down until a few days ago. My program is currently in the north in Hodayot. We have been touring Tzphat, Tiberias, Haifa, the Golan and many other places.

A few days ago we were told to only travel in groups of three in case anything happened to one of us on our own. Now we have begun daily safety seminars in the mornings before we start our day. We talk about the current news in Israel and any new necessary safety precautions.

Two nights in a row we have had camp-wide safety seminars. The first night was about the possible need to cancel some events such as an atgar that is a sea-to-sea hike which was canceled in 2006 due to the war with Lebanon. It seems to me the likelihood of this being canceled again is quite high. We were supposed to go to Ir David, City of David, in Jerusalem last Sunday but due to safety we will be unable to go.

The second seminar was about the fact that today was supposed to be our last day in the north but due to safety, the camp does not feel it is safe for us to travel right now, so we will stay in Hodayot until Sunday. A lot of people around me seem concerned about the situation but the way I see it, Israel has yet to let anyone get hurt and I cannot imagine that starting now.

The only really scary thing that has happened is the night after we were in the Golan, Syrian rebel forces fired a missile right where we were. Having a siren going off where we are would definitely be scary. It’s hard to imagine that we would not miss one.

And the only significant change that kids here are seeing is that our planned free weekend is going to be very strict in terms of where people will be going. All the free weekend places are being reviewed and people may be forced to change their plans. The biggest talk right now is whether the missiles will mellow out or continue.

UPDATE: The counselor just came into my room to tell us that although Hodayot is one of the safest places to be right now, if an alarm goes off we should run into the bathroom and sit and cover our heads.

I have a feeling we will be in Hodayot for a while.

Related: A Summer Defined by War

Related: Summer of War: For Arab teens, a similar summer but with more death

Related: Summer of War: Hollywood, too, was divided

Related: Summer of War: Jewish law, though sparse, leans toward self-defense

Related: A view from Israel, Part 2: Safety guilt

Related: A view from Israel, Part 3: Surreality 

Related: In Israel’s north, staying safe means staying home for 250 underprivileged children

A view from Israel, Part 2: Safety guilt


Israel Defense Forces

DEFENSE: Iron Dome missiles intercepting rockets sent by Hamas toward Israeli population centers. According to jpost.com, Iron Dome shot down 735 missiles of 3,659 that were fired.

We are on our way to Jerusalem!

Along the way, there are only two designated safe spots to stop in order to use the bathroom. Our tour guide just told us that the safety protocol has changed. If we are on the bus and we hear a siren we must get down below the windows. The bus will slow down but not come to a complete stop.

Our guide then played a siren so that we would know what it sounds like if the siren happens.  As Israel gets safer — safe enough for us to travel south from Hodayot — everything ironically is becoming more real. There is a chance that we will have to just stay on the base all day in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, my counselors are constantly talking about the guilt that they feel. They know that their families are being shot at, running for protection. Both the tour guide and one of my counselors are from Beersheva. They talk about being here with Ramah Israel Seminar knowing that eight times a say their families are running for cover.

They talk about the guilt of being here knowing that their friends are being called up everyday. I think they feel like they are not doing the service to the country that others are doing. I feel bad for them. They feel like they are shying away from what everyone else has to experience. It really is a beautiful thing. They feel bad about not being there to comfort their families or to fight for their country.

Israel has clearly instilled a strong sense of community and patriotism in its people, and it is beautiful to see this first hand.

Related story: A view from Israel, Part 3: Surreality

Related story: A view from Israel, Part 1: Who am I, who are we?

A view from Israel, Part 3: Surreality

REST: An IDF soldier on leave from the fighting in Gaza addressed Bnai Akiva students in Jerusalem July 22.

BP Photo by Jonah Gill

REST: An IDF soldier on leave from the fighting in Gaza addressed Bnai Akiva students in Jerusalem July 22.

BEERSHEVA, Aug. 1: In the past few weeks since my last update, I have done a multitude of things. I completed a four-day army simulation, fired an M-16, slept in a Bedouin tent, hiked Masada, floated in the Dead Sea, and heard my first air raid siren. The situation in Israel becomes more surreal by the day. Whether it is the Twitter feed of the IDF or the reaction of people around me, each day the effects of the conflict hit closer to home.

I was part of a four-day simulation in which I was treated as if I was a soldier. I wore the army uniform and learned to shoot the very gun that our soldiers are currently using to defend themselves and the state of Israel against Hamas fighters in the Gaza Strip.  The fact that I was learning to shoot the same weapon as the soldiers made the whole situation more surreal. I was treating the weapon as a toy; they are using it to protect. That weapon kills. As much as we on Ramah Seminar were joking around, those guns are used to kill and defend.

The next experience that has made this situation more surreal was learning about deaths of the soldiers and who they affect. The boyfriend of a female commander at our army program was one of the 13 Golani soldiers killed in Gaza. Another one of those soldiers, Max Steinberg z”l, was a lone soldier from Los Angeles – just like my brother Saul will be, and many others who we know. Two of those soldiers were Gareen Sabar soldiers — part of a program that helps people who are not from Israel make aliyah. This is the same program my brother and countless others are doing. The best friend of my counselor from last summer at Ramah was killed in the same operation. Out of just those 13 Golani soldiers there are so many that I feel a connection with and I didn’t even know them. Everyone is connected to these soldiers in one way or another.

The next experience has happened this past week. We are currently in the south on a kibbutz, 37 miles from Gaza. We are near Beersheva. A few nights ago I heard my first siren. I ran into a room along with about 30 people. I didn’t feel scared at all. In fact, I took a picture and put it on my Snapchat. We sat in a room for about 10 minutes, then were given the okay to leave our rooms. The missile was aimed for Beersheva. When you talk to anyone in Israel who has heard a siren, it means nothing to them.  Iron Dome and the shelters have made these missiles just another part of the surreal.

Yesterday my counselor came to our group in tears. A member of his squad and a soldier who he was once in charge of had been injured. They were in a building when a bomb went off and the building collapsed on them.  He left us for the day and went to Beersheva where they were being hospitalized. This was the same counselor who in my last update was expressing a large amount of guilt for not being out fighting in this situation.

On my free weekend, I had the pleasure of staying with a friend who had made aliyah. He described his reasoning for making aliyah as he didn’t want to just sit on the sidelines, he wanted to play in the game. I can only imagine that my counselor is feeling that and then some.

In fact, I think everyone is feeling that a little bit. My brother keeps on expressing to me that he wishes he had made aliyah a year ago so he could be fighting right now. It’s incredible to me how passionate people are about defending this nation.

RELATED: A view from Israel, Part 2: Safety guilt  

RELATED: A view from Israel, Part 1: Who am I, who are we?

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